Saturday, January 10, 2009

Remebering Bob Wilkins

Bob Wilkins passed away a couple of days ago from alzheimers disease. He had been suffering for several years, so it was probably a blessing that he was finally released from whatever pain he may have had. Though it is always a tragedy when someone has alzheimers, when someone was a quick wit like Bob Wilkins, it seems especially tragic. Wilkins was another of those people who influenced who I am today... and he may have been one of the earliest influences (right after my 6th grade teacher Bob Olson... but Bob Wilkins was *famous*).

By now most of you are wondering just who the hell Bob Wilkins was?

If you grab your TV remote and click around the stations, you will probably find nothing but network stuff. Even after the merger of UPN and WB into CW, the stations that were left behind got gobbled up by Fox as part of that Telenovela experiment that failed, and now is My Network. Except for the news, you probably won’t find any locally generated programs. But back when I was a kid and dinosaurs ruled the earth, there were actual *independent* TV stations that created their own local TV shows. Every city had them, and big cities probably had more than one. Small towns may have even had them, but living halfway between Oakland and Stockton, we got our TV shows from one city or another.

Our big VHF (2-13) independent station was KTVU 2 out of Oakland. Though they probably had a syndicated show or two, mostly everything on channel 2 was homegrown. They made their own kid shows: Miss Pat’s Playroom was the little kid’s activity show where you would bend and stretch and reach for the stars and color pictures and do other creative things, and then there was an older kid’s hosted cartoon show, like Charlie & Humphrey. There was a cooking show and a dance show in the afternoon where they’s play the latest records. But the staple of KTVU was movies, and you always had to know the Count & Amount in case the phone rang during Dialing For Dollars in the afternoon... hosted by Pat McCormick (the weatherman). There was also the 8 O’clock movie, followed by the Don Sherwood Show - our local version of The Tonight Show hosted by radio comedian Don Sherwood (who was Chief Santa - the Native American Santa Claus - during the holiday season). And on Saturday nights, there was CREATURE FEATURES with Bob Wilkins.

Wilkins had begun the show on the NBC affiliate out of Sacramento, KCRA, and that’s where I first watched it... but when he moved to KTVU the show really took off.

CREATURE FEATURES would usually begin with Bob Wilkins in his yellow rocking chair, smoking a big cigar, and warning the audience that tonight's movie was so bad, you don't have to wait for commercial breaks to go to the bathroom. Go anytime, you won't miss anything good. I kind of swiped that for my Action book when I talk about pacing and the Bladder Buster movie. Bob Wilkins usually didn't show Bladder Busters...

Every city’s independent station had a horror host, but Bob Wilkins was different. He didn’t wear a costume, he wasn’t trying to be scary... he was kind of like Woody Allen. He wore glasses, dressed like school teacher, and didn’t have any horror props - no coffins or headstones. He had a quick wit - a dry wit - and would say the funniest things about the films during commercial breaks. Better than Mystery Science Theater comments. In a way, his method was more Hitchcock than Elvira - he’d have some joke or skit or something between film segments that was usually more entertaining than the films. That's when you didn't want to go to the bathroom - when the movie wasn't on and Bob Wilkins was. The commercial breaks were why you watched CREATURE FEATURES.

"Our second film is Monster From the Ocean Floor. This movie is so bad that it was delivered to Channel 2 in a brown paper bag. When we're through showing it tonight, it will be part of a garage sale in Alameda tomorrow."

The films were a great mix of good and bad. He showed all of the Japanese monster movies like GODZILLA, MOTHRA, and RODAN... and his comments about these films made you love them *because* of their faults. These days I have a love for movies so bad they’re good - and I owe that to Wilkins. He showed me (and everyone else watching) that a cheesy movie could be fun. The worse the film, the better his jokes about it. And when he wasn’t showing movies featuring Japanese guys in rubber suits, he was showing awful movies featuring American guys in rubber suits. All kinds of bad B movies with monsters and creeping unknowns....

And those silly movies that you would laugh at more than scream at were balanced with really good horror and sci-fi films. I probably saw CREEPING UNKNOWN and THEM! and CURSE OF THE DEMON and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and all of the Universal monster movies on CREATURE FEATURES. George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD made its TV premiere on his show. He warned everyone that it was a really scary movie - and really gross. We would want to cover our eyes, and it would probably give us nightmares... and he was right!

When you’re a kid with too much imagination who doesn’t really fit in, horror movies were a lifesaver. Horror movies not only taught you how to conquer your fears, they showed you stories about big ugly misunderstood folks like you... who made the normal people afraid. When Frankenstein’s Monster meets his Bride for the first time, and falls in love with her at first site... but she’s just not into him... “She hate me!” I could relate. Monster movies and science fiction films sparked my imagination and made me feel normal. Every Saturday night CREATURE FEATURES would either provide a movie so bad it was good that I could laugh at, or a really scary or really imaginative movie that I enjoyed as much as the old Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies they showed on Sunday nights.

Bob Wilkins also had great interviews with all of the stars of horror movies, the filmmakers, and often showed short horror films from viewers. I remember one of the short films to this day - a man comes home from work and takes off his neck tie, takes off his coat, takes off his shoes, takes off his shirt, takes off his right arm, takes off his legs, takes off his left arm... and then what is left falls into bed! The cool thing about the shorts and the interviews with film directors - and even the local film makers who made the shorts - is that a kid like me discovered that people made movies, even people in the towns near me! That meant maybe I could make movies, too!

Wilkins was probably the first person on TV that I met in person. During summers he would have a movie club that showed kid-friendly sci-fi and monster movies in school auditoriums. Mostly just to give kids something to do over summer instead of breaking the windows of some condemned building in the old part of town. One of the schools he always showed movies in was my Intermediate School - just beyond the creek behind my house. My parents wouldn’t let me cut through the creek, so I had to go around. But I must have seen The Three Stooges visit every planet in our solar system thanks to Bob Wilkins. And he’d have raffles and give away candy bars and sign autographs... I once got an autographed picture of Godzilla at one of his movie club showings! Godzilla! What star is bigger than Godzilla?

I don't think I would be the person I am, and love the films I love, if it hadn't been for Bob Wilkins. A few weeks ago I posted on a message board about discovering BASKETCASE on a video store shelf and renting it - would I have ever done that without a show like CREATURE FEATURES in my childhood?

Bob Wilkins is gone, now. I’m sure he’s somewhere up there in his chair, puffing on a big cigar and making fun of the Keanu version of DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. I will always remember him, and his jokes, and those movies where you didn’t have to wait for the commercials to go to the bathroom. He will be missed.

Bob Wilkins tribute

Creature Features

- Bill


Anonymous said...

I live in San Ramon and, while I didn't watch Creature Feature, I sure do remember Dialing for Dollars!

MacDaffy said...

Thank you for this walk down memory lane. I'm old enough for the memory to be fuzzy, but I could swear the Creature Features was where I first saw "The Five-Thousand Fingers of Dr. T"--the first television movie whose ending I can remember scaring the daylights out of me.

We Bay Area kids were especially blessed when it came to kids programming. There were Miss Nancy, Mayor Art, Pat McCormick--who you mentioned as host of "Dialing For Dollars"--also voiced the "Charlie Horse and Humphrey Hambone" puppets. There was the laconic, drawling Marshall Jay and a host of other shows and personalities that came and went.

I was a little too young to get most of Bob Wilkins's humor. But he showed the most exciting, diverse movies on television. I remember Kronos about an alien robot sent to earth to absorb all its energy. The mechanic of locomotion of a huge robot whose legs were pistons that only went up and down didn't concern me; it was scary.

This was the heyday of actors like Richard Denning, John Agar, and Whit Bissell who filled military uniforms or lab coats, said their lines, and watched while the monsters ran amok.

Godspeed to Bob Wilkins. He brought us kids movies that our parents normally wouldn't let us see. And thanks again for reminding me.

August Ragone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
August Ragone said...

Great remembrance of Bob; thanks for posting this! I work with the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in producing monster movie events, and there will be a Bob Wilkins memorial show in the coming months. Please check back with the official Bob Wilkins website for more details as they are announced.

I hope that you will be able to attend (or at the very least, help us to spread the word).

August Ragone

Anonymous said...

didnt bob also premiere hardware wars?

bob was an og geek and made all us kid geeks feel special

i saved up all my money from my paper route in order to buy a small black and white tv, just so i could watch his show, without my parents yelling at me to go to bed

rip and uncle forry can now spend the rest of eternity discussing the best and worst of movies, comics and pulps

Darren said...

I watched Miss Pat's Playroom here in Sacramento. I remember one time sending in a picture I drew, and she showed it on tv with so many others! "And here's one from little Darren showing an airplane bombing a house." Today if a kid sent that picture anywhere, CPS would be called and psychologists and counselors would swarm the kid--but to Miss Pat, that was just what little boys drew.

Unknown said...

While growing up, 2 people in the Bay Area shaped my pop-culture values systems more than any others: M.Dung(KFOG), and Bob Wilkins. I think Bob Wilkins is the original "cool nerd." Of course, it wasn't until I was old enough to drive that I understood why he always made fun of Milpitas ;-) Thank you for this wonderful little spot to remember and appreciate! Gary

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